Character agency in David Lynch’s cinema

The films, television series and video projects of David Lynch have vexed and stimulated viewers since the 1970s. Authors James D. Reid and Candace R. Craig have taken of the films and one television series by Lynch as subject for their discussion about agency in Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch. Each chapter relates to Lynch’s films Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE and the third season of the television series Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks season 1 and 2, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Dune and the short films are excluded. (On the absence of Dune, they write: “[…] we both find the film to be unwatchable.” Many viewers find INLAND EMPIRE far more unwatchable.)

They point out that Lynch does not seem to be setting forth a coherent articulated philosophical worldview in his films. “However, the search for thematic coherence in the director’s body of work need not entail a unified philosophical position in evidence throughout Lynch’s oeuvre.”[i] This comes position comes as a relief, as attempts to present any body of complex cinematic work as a fixed, purposeful, consistent and didactic system seems a chimera, more of a projection of a need for certainty and confirmation on the part of the interpreter than any empirically derived assessment of the work as it is.

Lynch’s background as an artist, his absolute control over most of his projects (as writer, director and editor, as well as his contributions to the music and occasionally acting of his films) make Lynch an archetypal auteur and (as such) an ideal subject for an assessment of overarching ideas and themes. His freedom in combining disparate imagery, genres, tones and themes means his work is very rich. Within films, even within scenes, Lynch juxtaposes (rather than blending) humour, eroticism, the aesthetically striking and the unsettling in ways that allow the exploration of deep emotions, contradictory feelings and rarely posed philosophical questions, particularly regarding reality, desire, memory and understanding.

Alvin from The Straight Story is attributed a high degree of agency because of his active participation and pursuit of self-determined goals in his quest to travel to see his sick brother. The story centres on Alvin driving hundreds of miles with a tractor because he has no driver’s licence and features the encounters he has along the way. In some respects, The Straight Story is judged an atypical Lynch film in that it features little eroticism, horror, gore and Surrealism; what is not mentioned is that the protagonist is atypically assured and purposeful, also able to enact his aims in a straightforward manner. It is uncharacteristically straight. The authors demure at the suggestion that Alvin’s quest is an embodiment of the value of rugged individualism, mentioning the assistance he gets and the framing of his journey as an act of recuperation.

Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer is a character with weak agency. Henry evades responsibility, avoids making firm decisions, initiates little, is passive in most situations and thereby gains his classic Kafkaesque character of the man buffeted by circumstance. He seems barely in control of anything yet is held responsible for the burden of fatherhood to a creature which is not human but has human traits. He fails as a husband and provider and ultimately catastrophically fails as a father by inadvertently killing his “child” whilst trying to alleviate its suffering. He seems to have gained little understanding of his world or what is expected of him, surrendering his agency through ignorance and timidity than any sort of malice. The authors write of Henry as an example of Aristotle’s akrasia (weakness of will), as he is man stuck in stasis which seems (at least in part) of his own doing. Yet, as the authors note, Henry’s infanticide is an act of liberation for him, displaying some agency, perhaps a powerful subconscious selfishness. The problem of drawing any line between reality and fantasy in Lynch’s works means it is not clear whether of not Henry commits infanticide or merely imagines doing so. The deliberate ambiguity of the director leaves the matter in irresolvable doubt.

John (Joseph) Merrick of The Elephant Man is a case of a person whose agency is limited by environment. In that film, based on the true story of a Victorian Englishman afflicted by a severe deformity, Merrick is unable to test his intellectual and emotional capacities due to the cruelty and hostility of a society repelled by his ugliness. His life is so circumscribed by his medical condition, which left him seriously disabled, and by the rejection of society that it is only the intervention of an enlightened surgeon, Dr Frederick Treves, that Merrick is permitted to engage in polite society rather than being confined to a freak show. Ironically, it is through the intervention of another that the character achieves limited liberation from societal hostility, though his medical condition remains unchanged.   

Merrick’s situation and his ability to further his desires rests upon eliciting the empathy of others. Merrick’s intelligence and sensitivity are revealed through the charity and compassion of the high society people who were introduced to him through his guardian, Treves. Once enabled by this, Merrick can explore new experiences and develop his artistry (his ability to construct elaborate architectural models). It is seems slightly off the mark to critique The Elephant Man for taking “considerable liberties with historical fact and seems to ignore the ways in which socioeconomic forces govern human lives, presenting the viewer with stark moral alternatives more in keeping with bad Hollywood Westerns. If there is exploitation to be addressed, its proper target is something larger, and more impersonal, than the individuals directly involved in Merrick’s fate.”[ii] The authors seem to have pre-judged how any socio-economic critique might lay blame. Such matters are not cut and dried and it is unwise to assume their views to be objective and universally shared. Lynch is not an analytical or especially socially-directed creator, so expecting any approach of this type is puzzling.  

In Blue Velvet Jeffrey Beaumont investigates and becomes sexually entangled with club singer Dorothy Vallens and thereby incurs the wrath of Frank Booth. For the first time in Lynch’s work, there is an active antagonist, one who exercises powerful self-directed agency. Frank threatens Dorothy and Jeffrey, kills Dorothy’s husband, kidnaps her son and dominates the crime scene of Lumberton. Jeffrey overcomes his own weak agency and the opposition of Frank to defeat Frank and restore order to Lumberton, returning a degree of comfort to Dorothy by (indirectly) freeing her son. In the film, Dorothy and Sandy have the least power of control or self-actualisation, limited by the actions of others. However, significantly, it is Dorothy’s command of sexual attractiveness that is used to dominate Jeffrey and to demand of him sexual violence against her.  

Blue Velvet is a film about seeing and, importantly, about seeing as an instrument of knowing. This is a film that asks obsessively what it is to know something, how vision enters into the search for truth, and how far the capacity to see reaches in the work of acquiring knowledge, in a Kantian register what the scope and limits of vision can be said to be.”[iii] In the most famous scene, Jeffrey secrets himself in a closet in Dorothy’s flat to avoid discovery and inadvertently observes her unawares. He inadvertently witnesses the emotional abuse and sexual assault of Dorothy by Frank. What was intended as an enactment of a mystery investigation – a staple of detective novels and old films – becomes a shocking insight into depravity and the depths of the human psyche, something for which Jeffrey is completely unprepared. The authors examine the difference between experiencing and understanding. “One of the central events of Blue Velvet boils down to the unmasking of a misguided conception of what it is to come to know. Jeffrey is, it seems, actuated by curiosity, the desire to know simply for the sake of knowing, and, more specifically, as we saw, by the desire to see.”[iv]  

Wild at Heart is a violent road movie with two main protagonists, Sailor and Lula. “If Sailor and Lula frequently appear to be failing as agents, this is partly because they bring with them all the existential anxieties associated with their pasts, in the shape of experience, but also in the guise of significant others, whose lives, past and present, form a web into which their current efforts invariably fall. Sailor and Lula cannot easily escape (or escape too easily in spurious forms of release) because they carry with them the potent influences of those responsible for helping create the contexts out of which they grew and developed and against which they now struggle.”[v]

Interpretation of Lynch’s subsequent films Lost Highway, INLAND EMPIRE and (to a lesser extent) Mulholland Drive is complicated by structural and character ambiguity. It is harder to discuss the characters in these films because disentangling fact from fantasy in these (fictional) films is almost impossible. The reality of the characters resides both in their actions and dreams; their actual selves and their imagined selves (including doppelgangers and alternate selves) overlap. The authors do their best but much of what they conclude is necessarily more debatable due to the complications the material presents. I contend that the discussion of the third season of Twin Peaks is flawed because it does not sufficiently incorporate an analysis of the first two seasons and (especially) Fire Walk With Me. Although Twin Peaks Season 3 has many aspects that make it self-contained, a discussion of character agency cannot be understood without recourse the viewer expectations and experiences of the excluded material, and the way pre-experienced tropes are extended and subverted by the third season.  

The book is readable, with a minimum of jargon is used. In its seriousness, the authors do not sacrifice accessibility. The authors apply philosophy and philosophy of cinema at various points whilst not making such discussion too intrusive. They compare Lynch’s cinema to films by others and refer to cinema-theory writings. This title will be most value to students of cinema theory and those analysing Lynch’s unique contributions to film.   

James D. Reid and Candace R. Craig, Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch, 2020, Lexington Books, hardback, 267pp + xi, £69, ISBN 978 1 4985 5593 7  

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


[i] P. 3

[ii] P. 79

[iii] P. 98

[iv] P. 102

[v] P. 129

The Compelling Mystery of David Lynch

“A couple of years ago, it looked as though David Lynch’s active career as a director was over. After all, his then most recent movie Inland Empire had been released in 2006. This rambling, disconnected 180-minute film was by far the most obscure work he had produced. It received mixed reviews, alienated casual audiences and was disliked by even some diehard Lynch fans. He had not directed anything substantial since then. He was mainly occupied with making art (he had several high-profile and well-reviewed exhibitions in the US and Europe) and speaking about transcendental meditation. It seemed that Lynch the film director had retired for good.

Then a new, third series of Twin Peaks (featuring many of the old cast members and directed entirely by Lynch) premiered in 2017 and met a very favourable response from fans and critics alike. Lynch proved he was still able to satisfy and perplex audiences by taking genuine risks and following his personal vision.

Room to Dream is a biography formatted in an unusual way. Biographical chapters – each focusing on a particular project of Lynch’s – are written by Kristine McKenna, using interviews with friends, family and colleagues, in addition to documentary sources; these are followed by commentaries from Lynch himself, telling stories and sharing personal details relating to these projects in a conversational manner. Thus we get both a factual account that is largely neutral and Lynch’s own perspective on matters, complete with photographs showing Lynch on set and with friends….”

Read the full review online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-compelling-mystery-of-david-lynch/21707#.W35Q1M5KjIU

Twin Peaks: Blu-ray boxset review

“The release of television series Twin Peaks (1990-1) and the related movie, Fire Walk With Me (1992), in Blu-Ray finally brings the story of Laura Palmer’s murder to a conclusion. Although the last original material in the story was filmed over 20 years ago, previous releases lacked crucial scenes, which are now released for the first time.

“In the late 1980s, Mark Frost (creator of Hill Street Blues) and David Lynch (director of Eraserhead and Dune) pitched to ABC a murder mystery set in Twin Peaks, a fictional town in the Pacific Northwest. Much to the pair’s surprise, the project was given the go-ahead. Lynch cast established actors (Piper Laurie, Richard Beymer) and new faces (Sherilyn Fenn, Mädchen Amick) alongside regular collaborators, including Kyle MacLachlan in the central role of Special Agent Dale Cooper. The use of the mountainous, heavily wooded scenery on the Canadian border and a memorable original score by Angelo Badalamenti contributed to Twin Peaks’ distinctiveness. Other nice touches, such as incidental shots of windblown pine trees and stoplights swinging in the night sky, added an underlying eeriness…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 5 August 2014 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/twin-peaks-this-revolution-was-televised/15530#.Vd-FofldU5k